A Visit with Judy Goldman

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Judy for several years. So many in fact, I’m not even sure when we first met. But I do remember riding with her and our friend, Claire, to a weeklong writing workshop. Claire and I attending as students and Judy as an instructor for the week. While Claire and I picked her brain a little bit about writing, what I remember is Judy’s genuine interest in our writing projects and writing life. She is one of the most generous people I know.

I’m the oldest of three girls so when Judy’s first memoir, Losing My Sister, was published I had to read it. With touching honesty Judy reveals the love and sometimes distance between herself and older sister, Brenda.

Now I look forward to her new memoir, Together: Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap, to be released in February.  Judy let me pick her brain again recently and here is what she had to say about her books and her writing.

A Writer’s Window: You’ve written poetry and fiction as well. What draws you to memoir?
Judy: I was perfectly happy writing poetry. Then my stanzas began stretching into paragraphs, and I realized I was leaning towards prose. That’s when I wrote my first novel, then the second one. But I really believe I was not good at fiction. Making things up is not my strong suit. What I really love is re-examining an experience I didn’t fully understand when it happened, an experience that still haunts or disturbs me. And that . . . is memoir.

A Writer’s Window: Fiction writers often have a ‘seed’ or ‘aha’ moment that propels their story. Are you comfortable sharing the definitive moment that propelled you to write your memoirs, Losing My Sister and Together: Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap?
Judy: Who knows where anything comes from in writing? But here goes:

In 2006, to relieve his back pain, my husband had an epidural, a procedure so routine it’s given to women in childbirth. The minute the needle pushed into his spine, he was paralyzed from the waist down. People kept asking me if I was going to write about this. “Never!” I declared. I’d lived through it; I certainly did not want to live through it again. But then, in 2008, I was held up at gunpoint at a dry cleaner. That incident did not scare me; it made me sad. I kept crying. Finally, I realized that my husband’s medical mishap and the holdup felt the same – both were proof that life can change in an instant. I could finally cry over what had happened to my husband two years before. And I could use that as a lens through which to explore the changes – both dramatic and ordinary – that occur in every marriage. That’s when I began writing Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap.

Within 5 days, 3 things happened that turned my life upside down: My sister was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, my daughter found out she was pregnant with identical twins, a daughter whom my brother had fathered and put for adoption 40 years before found him. Immediately, a title popped into my head: The Arithmetic of Family. I wrote the memoir this title was leading me to write. But 2 ½ years into the writing, I realized I had not written the memoir my lifelong preoccupation was leading me to write. I cut two sections of my book and was left with a memoir about my older sister and me – Losing My SisterA Writer’s Window: Merriam-Webster defines biography as a usually written history of a person’s life; autobiography as the biography of a person narrated by himself or herself; memoir as a narrative composed from personal experience.

Other than the obvious differences, as a writer what are the subtle and intrinsic differences in both the content and in writing a memoir that may not be so obvious?
Judy: An autobiography is the epic chronology of a life, the public life. A memoir is the private life. Autobiography emphasizes what is remembered; memoir emphasizes who is remembering. I’ll just add that the most important thing I’ve learned about writing memoir is this: It is not enough to convey what happened. We need to examine what the story means. The reward we hope for in writing memoir is self-knowledge. What was I thinking then? What am I thinking now? How do I understand the person I was then in light of the person I am now?

A Writer’s Window: You’ve taught memoir writing classes for several years at Table Rock Writing Workshop. What have you learned from your students over the years?
Judy: I’ve actually been teaching for about thirty-five years! I keep teaching because it’s a tremendously satisfying thing to do. I love how hard my students work to get their stories right – which inspires me to work hard to get my own stories right. And then, once we discover we can’t actually get everything right, we just keep doing our work in hopes of coming close. What a great thing for all of us to learn!

A Writer’s Window: Whose memoir have you most enjoyed reading? Is there one you’re waiting to read – whether it’s actually been written yet or not!
Judy: Oh, goodness, there are so many excellent memoirs. Recently, I’ve enjoyed Sarah Perry’s Before the Eclipse, David Sedaris’s Calypso, Decca Aitkenhead’s All at Sea. A memoir I read back in 2011 that remains one of my favorites is Darin Strauss’s Half a Life. I’ll also add Rosenblatt’s Making Toast.

A Writer’s Window: What is your writing space like?
Judy: I absolutely adore my writing space. My computer sits atop an old rolltop desk, which was the last gift my father gave me. So, when I write, I also get to remember my father – and also, my mother, who was not able to participate in the gift because she had Alzheimer’s at the time. My father was dying of cancer and living with my husband, our two children, and me. He spent every day at my mother’s bedside in a Charlotte nursing home. One day, he told me he wanted to give me a fabulous present to thank me for taking care of him and Mother. This desk is that fabulous present! I’ve never been to a writers’ colony because I can’t imagine ever writing on anything but this desk, which I’ve owned since 1979.

A Writer’s Window: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?
Judy: The odd answer to this question is that I think I’m always writing! When I’m spending time with my sweet husband, sweet children, sweet grandchildren, I’m loving being with them – and I’m also unconsciously collecting experiences which I’ll no doubt write about! When I’m with my friends – some I’ve had since childhood – we’re talking about our lives, which is also what I do when I write. When I’m walking in the neighborhood, which I enjoy doing, I’m often thinking of some knotty problem in my work I’m trying to solve. So there’s only a thin, porous separation between living and writing – sort of a semi-permeable membrane through which things continually pass back and forth.

A Writer’s Window: What a perfect image of the writer’s essence. Thank you Judy for letting us peek into your Writer’s Window today!

Here is the link for pre-ordering Judy’s upcoming memoir, Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap.  Isn’t that a wonderful cover photo?

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Sisyphus and Writers on Folly Beach, SC

I spent the last week of August on Folly Beach, SC with part of my family, including our Three Little Guys ages 2 years, 7 months, and 6 months.

While playing with them was the highlight of the week, what captivated all of us – especially the 2 year old – was watching the diggers and bulldozers restore the beach.

From Saturday to Wednesday we enjoyed our expanse of sand and surf – reading, collecting shells, taking naps and watching the restoration taking place several houses away. We saw sand, pumped from 25 blocks away, spew from a pipe. Heard the machines rumble and beep going forward and backward as they moved the sand. From our vantage point of those several houses away the vehicles looked like over-sized Tonka trucks.

Then Thursday morning we woke to the house shaking, found the bottom three steps of our beach access completely buried and yellow tape blocking them and the beach from us.

During the next few days we’d walk to the end of the boardwalk, grandsons in tow, to watch the progress and kibitz like old men. The process was fascinating as sand levees were built to hold back the ocean while diggers and bulldozers backfilled and added to the beach. From Saturday to Wednesday this stretch of beach, all the way out to the line of rocks on the right was firm sand.

Somewhat like Sisyphus condemned to forever roll a boulder uphill, this whole endeavor seemed futile to some extent. Sand was piped, pushed, and dragged . . . only to do it all over again in the same place. At one point a foreman – or so we assumed – stopped all the activity in front of our place, gestured back toward the area that was restored earlier in the week, and all the vehicles formed a line and paraded back down the beach to redo whatever needed fixing. They returned later in the day to shake the house and continued all through the night. When we left on Saturday they were still working on the area in front of our rental.

Besides Sisyphus, the other thought that kept running through my head was how this constant building and rebuilding was a metaphor for writers! Earlier in the summer hubby peeked into my office and said the paragraph I was working on didn’t look any longer than it was when he peeked in an hour and a half before. It wasn’t, but the content and length had changed considerably and often in that time. Writers write, delete and write again. We take our piles of words and push them around over and over until they’re just right. We work deep into the night. Sometimes all the work seems futile, and often there are others telling us we need to go back and fix something we thought was finished. Yet all that shifting, building and rebuilding is always worth it.

And without that work what would all of us have to read when we go to the beach?

Just over a week ago was the beginning of Autumn – YAH!!! What was your favorite beach or lighter summer read this year? What books are you looking to sink into as the days get cooler and shorter?

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A ‘Sizzling’ Interview with Lisa Puls Dunn

When you hear the word ‘sizzle’ what does it make your skin do? I picture the bubbling and crisping like bacon on a griddle and my skin feels the heat. In Grit of Berth and Stone, the first book in Lisa Puls Dunn’s trilogy, The Chasmaria Trilogy, the short, tense opening chapter is all about sizzle as the young protagonist Grit is branded on her sixteenth birthday. Lisa has named her young protagonist well.

Creating characters we suspect could walk through our door at any moment is not the only thing Lisa has done well in her debut series. Her pacing keeps the reader turning pages as Grit and her companions battle kin and spies, sometimes not knowing which is which, all for the sake of protecting the world they inhabit. Of course there is an opposing force that is fighting just as hard to destroy it.

A Writer’s Window: What was the seed for your Chasmaria trilogy and where did it come from? Can you give a brief description of the various sub-genres of Science Fantasy and where your books fall?

Lisa: Chasmaria began with the simple question of what a world without love would look like. How would humanity survive? What would people value? What sort of societies would form? And what would happen if love crashed it all?

I quickly realized that people would need to band together for protection and procreation, but as this story of a culture that valued self-sufficiency at all costs evolved, it became evident that love cannot be divorced from the human condition. So you’ll meet characters in Chasmaria who know something is off, like Coil, who has trained under Sire Stone, a man highly esteemed but often mocked for his devotion to Dame Berth and their offspring.

Even Dame Berth, despite her bitter disappointment in and harsh treatment of Grit, often acts in her daughter’s interest, though sometimes in veiled or misguided ways. I’m not sure if all her affection for Grit is immediately apparent – I intended for readers to have to look for it – but there are little things, like a loaf of bread from Dame Berth’s kitchen, that indicate Berth isn’t as harsh as she first appears, that she is, in fact, very much torn between her upbringing and her unshakeable humanity.

And the Inner Ringers . . . I’d love to go back and delve into their culture-within-the-culture because I suspect some of them were revolutionaries and no one knew it.

As far as where the book falls, one Amazon reviewer said, “Imagine if Katniss Everdeen was the one who walked through the wardrobe.” While I have a long way to go before I’m comfortable with comparison, Grit does begin her journey with the kind of tough exterior we find in characters like Katniss, who is at the forefront of any discussion of strong female protagonists, and she is significantly transformed over the course of the series by her affiliation with Christ-figure Kinsmon. Lloyd Alexander is one of my all time favorite authors, and I had just finished the Prydain Chronicles when I started writing Grit of Berth and Stone. I’m sure readers could find similarities there, too. Basically, we’re looking at classic high fantasy – with wars and journeys across mountains and plains, but without any apostrophed names – with a touch of Christian allegory. I didn’t intend to write a Christian book, but one that would inspire readers of any background to love without fear.

A Writer’s Window: If you could sit and talk with one of your characters, whom would it be and why, and what do you think the topic of conversation would be?

Lisa: I really want to say, “ Talon of March and Swot,” because he has witnessed everything, suffered much, and somehow learned to walk again, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Arrow of the Eastern Pines. Arrow is such a brave, tender soul, and his question always transports me to Harth’s inn. I can almost taste some frothy beverage – a bit like cream soda – as Arrow, with soft voice and steady gaze, asks me questions that cut to the heart. I don’t know what we’d talk about, but it would be a soul-cocooning conversation.

A Writer’s Window: Was there a book you read as a child or teen that fanned your desire to write?

Lisa: I don’t think there was a particular book from my childhood or youth, but I do remembering seeing The High King on the library shelf shortly after I finished that series with one of my children and wishing there were more heroes like Taran.

A Writer’s Window: Do you have a specific, designated writing space? If so, what does it look like? If not, what is your dream writing space?

Lisa: I have four kids, a husband, and a dog, so a specific, designated writing space is a distant dream. I envision an uncluttered desk beneath a second story window overlooking something beautiful, but the reality is I do most of my writing in the corner of the couch or even in bed, propped up by all of my pillows and the husband’s, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to transition to a desk chair, if ever the dream becomes the reality.

A Writer’s Window: What is your greatest reward in writing? (What makes you do the happy dance?)

Lisa: I honestly love the whole process. The stage when ideas are flowing, scenes are forming, words are being strung into sentences . . . It’s mad and beautiful and invigorating. But revising and editing is just as glorious, if a little more gritty, if you can forgive the play on words. While creativity of a first draft stirs my heart, the revision process is where I feel the magic really happens. In the drafting phase, you’re sort of dumping all the pieces on the table and moving them around where you think they might go, but during revisions, you’re locking the pieces into a complete, coherent whole. The stakes are higher now, but if you can pull it off . . . Wow.

A Writer’s Window: When you’re not writing how do you spend your time?

Lisa: Homeschooling four children, currently grades 4 – 11, consumes the bulk of my day. With naturally independent children, carefully selected, open-and-go curriculum, and a few co-op classes for the older ones, I’ve somehow managed not to deplete the world’s coffee supply, though rumors of that industry’s instability do frighten me. This winter I accepted an editorial position at Anaiah Press, the company that published my trilogy, so my evenings are split between editing for my Anaiah authors and working on my own writing – that is, when I’m not binge-watching PARKS AND REC with my husband. I’ve been making more time for reading this year, not for kids or for work, but for my own pleasure. (Recently finished A LONG WALK TO WATER, which was quick and lovely. Currently reading THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin, which is long and weirdly good.) I enjoy camping with the family, provided the weather isn’t too hot and I have access to clean toilets and hot showers. Sleep is pretty important to me, too. I definitely like sleep, even if I’m totally bad at going to bed in a timely manner.

Visit Lisa on her blog  for more of her insights and humor. And to purchase her books!

You can also find her here, just not as pretty a site. Amazon author page.

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Did you know September 8th is International Literacy Day? And that it’s been so designated all the way back to October 1966? That’s over 50 years ago! Why isn’t this a national holiday when we honor the day with a day of quiet or communal reading? Can you imagine all the televisions, computers, and other devices turned off for the day while we just curl up with a good book?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) set the day aside to ‘highlight literacy to individuals, communities and societies.’ The first International Literacy Day was celebrated in 1967.

I was celebrating a grandson’s 2nd birthday on Saturday, but Sunday was our local Afternoon of Poetry and Prose, a monthly reading and open mic event. During the opening announcements one of the attendees announced the upcoming Yorkville Literary Festival. This will be a two-day event dedicated to readers of all ages and will include authors talking about their books and process, a slam poetry event and a community read.

It seems I’m often surrounded by books and reading.

Reading has always been a favorite pastime. It began with my Mom. She was an avid reader, which I assume came from my Grandma Schmitt because she always had stacks of books she was reading, all at the same time. I’ve picked up that habit and it boggles hubby’s mind how I keep them straight. Like most readers I know, I have a book with me  whenever I go anywhere. In fact when I’m forced to buy a new purse one of the requirements is that it’s big enough to hold a standard paperback book.

This is where it all began. The Galion Library is an Andrew Carnegie library and beautiful inside and out. When I go back home I try to stop inside just to look at the dome window and to breath in the scent of old wood and old books.

 

It was a beloved place for many reasons, including librarians Mrs. Gill and Mrs. Phipps. Just recently I found a copy of a Caldecott book that Mrs. Gill set aside for me, letting me be the first reader of the beautifully illustrated The Nightingale.

 

 

So what about you? What is your first memory of reading or being read to?
Where is your favorite place to read?
Now that you know September 8th is International Literacy Day, how will you celebrate it next year?

On Thursday peek back inside A Writer’s Window for an interview with author Lisa Puls Dunn.

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Subtlety of Sound

Last week a friend told me how his mom stored dry beans in coffee tins and they sat on the top of the tall kitchen cabinets. For him, those coffee tins were reassurance that there would be supper when money got tight.

What I couldn’t get out of my head was the sound of those beans pouring into the empty tins and what that sound meant. So I wrote a poem about it.

Last week I also admitted I was one of those weird people who welcome the shortening of days. One of my poet friends laughed and agreed I was weird. But this morning as I left the house at 6:15, I was reminded of one of the reasons why I love this time of year. It has to do with pre-dawn sounds  – insects chittering when birds haven’t yet started singing.

For years my morning ritual had been sitting on the deck during these almost-but-not-quite-light hours, journaling and doing morning pages by flashlight, surrounded by those sounds. It’s not just white noise to fill the air and relax me, there’s a real emotional connection to that music. Takes me back to Ohio when I slept with my window open? Or back to when I went tent camping with my kids? Something.

That got me thinking. As writers we want our readers to feel as if they’re in the place we’re writing about. The subtlety of sound is one way of doing that, not the big noises of doors slamming or guns going off, but those whispers of sounds like a match being struck or the hum of a ceiling fan. And what other sounds, like dry beans being poured into a tin, evoke the feeling of comfort, security, home?

Listening to clothes tumbling in a dryer is another one for me. It’s not the mechanical whir of the dryer, it’s the sound of the clothes themselves – towels or sheets especially – thump-thumping that lulls me back to childhood when mom finished laundry at night after my sisters and I went to bed.

And since I’ve already admitted to being weird, the rumble of a garbage truck or a snow plow also gives me comfort. Probably because these occur either late at night or early in the morning while I’m still cozy in bed.

What about you? What are those soft sounds that take you back or put you at ease? What sounds in your readings make you say ‘ahhh…. I know exactly how that feels?’

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The Excitement of School Supplies, the Beginning of a New School Year, and Reconnecting with Friends

‘Tis the season for school supplies! Were you one of those kids who couldn’t wait to fill your new pencil box? My pencil box was sometimes my Grandpa Schmitt’s cigar box so it had crisp corners and the papered hinge was still unbroken. Maybe it was the box of crayons that not only smelled good, but all the crayons had points and the wrappers were still intact that made you giddy? How about the 5-subject spiral notebooks, filled with  college-ruled, clean, empty pages that held so many good intentions that each section would be used just for the designated subject . . . until somehow one section ran out of paper too soon and messed up the whole system?

I was that kid. Still am.

Of course now that excitement and those purchases are for my writing and reading. There’s something about fresh starts with new supplies that energize my creative spirit. I’ve gotten back to blogging regularly and will be re-introducing something here in September. I can’t wait!

I’m reading more, both for pleasure and for research, so books have various colored sticky-notes popping out of them like someone’s partied inside and let loose handfuls of confetti. 

I’m back to writing more. I’ve finished two poems in as many weeks. I’m beginning the narrative on my parish history. I’m dusting off a fairly crappy first draft of a second novel while I work harder to find a home for the first.

I know this all has to do with these new supplies. Well ok, maybe not all.

But they do help and the change in the air does too. Hubby told me the other night we’ve lost an hour of daylight already since the summer solstice. I’m one of those weird ones who love the thought of shorter days.

But the highlight about this time of year is reconnecting with poets and writers after a month or two of summer break. Even though we’re not kids and our lives don’t revolve around the school calendar, our internal clocks somehow still revert to that cycle. Like years ago when the first day of school meant seeing friends again, we local poets and writers look forward to August when our critique groups reconvene and our monthly reading and open mic series starts up.

The first event of our Afternoon of Poetry and Prose for the 2018 – 2019 Season was Sunday. We always call this first month a Welcome Back Celebration. Unlike the rest of the year, we don’t invite a Feature Reader from outside our group to headline. Instead we regular members, we friends, gather and celebrate reconnecting, share our adult versions of What I Did Over Summer Vacation and most of all, celebrate the poems and stories we continue to write with each others’ support and encouragement.

What are some of your favorite memories and new traditions for this time of transition?

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A New Book Baby? More like a Foster Child

My book baby, In the Garden of Life and Death ~ A Mother and Daughter Walk, turns four this year, so not really a baby anymore.  Like parents of a toddler are often asked, ‘So, any plans for a sibling?’, writers are often queried, ‘What are you working on now?’ Both questions stem from a good place, real love and interest. Or so I hope.

For me – and it just happened again this week – the question gives me a little boost. It means the person believes in me as a writer and is eagerly waiting to meet the next little book baby. Well, the second baby is ‘in the oven’ – the hot mess of querying and looking for a home. Gestation periods for books are unpredictable. But I have a current work-in-progress . . . sort of.

Here she is. But she’s not really mine. I’m fostering her. My parish, St. Anne Catholic Church, in Rock Hill, SC will be celebrating her centennial in 2019 and I’ve been asked to compile her history into a book – including narrative, photos and recipes. My spare bedroom is now the parish archives.

One piece of research that came to me was a booklet of St. Anne’s history. I had mixed feelings even before I read it. It would be great to pick up where this left off, three-fourths of my work done! But I also didn’t want to be confined. Wearing a jacket makes me claustrophobic, how could I fit my vision of what the book should be if I had to work in the context of what was already researched and printed in this 8.5 x 11 page folded in half, stapled-together, booklet?

I glanced at the first page or two and was immediately overwhelmed by the small print, the denseness of the words on the page, the academic feel. I put it away and started in the research I’d have to do anyway.

Research included interviewing parishioners who have been in this church over 50 years. They remember the priest who was transferred to Texas but returned every year on his motorcycle and made a point to visit all the families. There were less than 50 at the time. They laughed and pulled out photos of the talent shows that raised money for the current building, our fourth place of worship in our 100 years.

I’ve lingered over scrapbooks, the pages so old they literally flake and disintegrate in my fingers. They are filled with photos and news clippings of summer camp, of the year the KKK burned a cross on our school property because we were integrated – the first in our state, of our International Festival – a weekend of some of the best food and entertainment from close to 20 countries. That’s how diverse our parish of over 1900 families is.
Those were the stories I wanted to tell, but was afraid I’d step on the toes of the historian before me. Over the weekend I finally waded through that booklet. It’s history, yet few stories. It lists the minutia of weekly collections through the years, chronicles a continuing census of births, sacraments and deaths, and glosses over the struggle of finding the piece of property where we finally built our church.

I have to admit, reading those pages was like opening a door. While I’ll use much of the information, I feel I can raise this little foster child of a book the way I’d hoped. I’ll fill her with the stories, the people, the ups and downs of what history is all about.

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